Wales lashed by hurricane Moffett
Sunday 08 December 2002
After the Great Redeemer, the Great Reformer. David Moffett, the first group chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, has hit the Principality with the revolutionary zeal of Robespierre. The WRU have been in business for 121 years and it has taken Moffett – no time for curds and whey – less than a week to blow away the cobwebs.
Behind his new desk on Monday, by Thursday he was announcing that the club scene, once considered sacrosanct, would be replaced by four provinces: Neath, Llanelli and Swansea merge to represent the west; Cardiff, Pontypridd and Bridgend in the south and Newport, Ebbw Vale and Caerphilly in the east. The fourth, in north Wales, will be based at Wrexham, presumably manned by players from the south.
The current nine-team Premier League would become a 12-club competition but played by part-time professionals. Nobody else would receive a penny. The plan is to have a total of about 120 professionals playing for the provinces in the Heineken Cup and the Celtic League, and contracted to the WRU.
It is a format successfully employed in the southern hemisphere and Ireland, where small is beautiful. Graham Henry, the Redeemer, wanted something similar. His successor Steve Hansen, another New Zealander, has said: "Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.''
Moffett, the former chief executive of the NZ RFU and Sport England, is being paid £200,000 to take Dai to the promised land. And not only by changing the playing structure, which they have been talking about for 12 years, but in slashing costs, which means redundancies. "I'm not here to win popularity contests,'' Moffett said. "The finances need sorting and that's pretty simple. You get your income to exceed costs. It'll happen quickly and it'll be painful for all concerned.''
There were, Moffett said, too many players earning too much money. "We'll find out very soon how serious people in Wales really are about change. We've got one chance to sort this out. I've got to cut through the crap.'' That includes cutting the general committee from 27 to 18.
"It's a positive move and we'll embrace change,'' Lyn Jones, the Neath coach, said. "People should be prepared to die for the good of the game.'' Whether Cardiff and Llanelli see it like that is another matter. There is already talk of a players' strike.
Befitting a club that was a founder member of the WRU, it was Neath's initiative in midweek, when they said they would link arms with Bridgend, that lit the fuse. The agenda was being set by Cardiff, Llanelli, Swansea, Newport and Pontypridd who could win every Premier League meeting by a 5-4 vote against Neath, Bridgend, Ebbw Vale and Caerphilly.
Faced with exclusion, Mike Cuddy, a Neath director, shook hands with Leighton Samuel, the owner of Bridgend. Whereas Samuel has invested a lot of money in his club only to see them running barefoot in the park, Neath, operating on a shoestring, have produced a natty pair of trainers. In the new year they meet Cardiff in the semi-finals of the Celtic League.
The timing of the revolution should see the provinces play next season, when there will already be disruption caused by the World Cup. There are, of course, huge questions yet to be answered: will the clubs play ball? Can teams that hate each other's guts work together? Who will select the elite coaches and squads? Will the public like it?
And the biggest doubt – what if it fails? "Judge me after 90 days,'' Moffett said. Many were doing so after four.
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